What is the psychology of obesity

Obesity and personality

The treatment of obesity could become more effective if the personality of the participants is taken into account. This is the conclusion reached by psychologists from the Universities of Bamberg and Bochum in an overview of more than 70 relevant studies. Their analyzes show that overweight, obesity and “binge eating” are related to certain personality traits.

While impulsive personality traits tend to favor eating disorders, conscientiousness and self-control act as protective factors against eating disorders. The results of the literature analysis have now been published in the journal "Obesity Reviews".

“Our knowledge of the relationship between personality, obesity and excessive eating has improved significantly in recent years,” says Sabine Löber, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the University of Bamberg. "We can now clearly say that people with corresponding eating disorders are more often impulsive and less self-controlled than people of normal weight."

70 studies from 1993 to 2013

The researchers analyzed studies that were carried out between 1993 and 2013, in which the relationship between personality and overweight or obesity (obesity) and binge-eating disorder (so-called "binge eating") were examined. The studies were in most cases the fifth -Factors model underlying the personality.

According to this model, the personality of every person can be classified according to these five factors: neuroticism (these include characteristics such as fearfulness, impulsiveness, vulnerability), extraversion (sociability, self-confidence, thirst for adventure), conscientiousness (competence, sense of duty, ambition, self-control), tolerance (Trust, straightforwardness, sensitivity) and openness (fantasy, aesthetic sensibility, ideas).

Impulsiveness: risk factor for "binge eating"

Which personality factors play a role in eating disorders and obesity? The analyzes show: Overweight people are more neurotic and, in particular, more impulsive than people of normal weight, which means that they are less able to align their actions with long-term consequences. Overweight people are also more extroverted and more receptive to rewards than those of normal weight.

This characteristic, also known as reward sensitivity, refers to the fact that, for example, one feels special pleasure when eating food. Impulsiveness and reward sensitivity also seem to be particularly pronounced in people who suffer from a binge-eating disorder. Reward sensitivity is a risk factor, especially in men.

Protection through self-control

Conscientiousness, on the other hand, proves to be a protective factor against obesity for both sexes. Self-control, i.e. the ability to postpone rewards and plan for the longer term, plays an important role in this context. Tolerance and openness, on the other hand, do not seem to be related to being overweight.

Hen or egg - the question of causality

Are people fat because they are neurotic or are they more neurotic because they are fat? Both directions are possible, but the long-term studies to date show that neuroticism is actually a risk factor and conscientiousness a protective factor for later obesity.

Benefits for the therapy of obesity

"The therapy of obesity can benefit from these findings," says Sabine Löber. “Individual characteristics play an important role in the development of obesity. These aspects should be considered in the therapy. For example, self-regulation training, in which strategies for dealing with impulsiveness and reward sensitivity are practiced, could help address the causes of obesity and binge eating and in this respect could be an important addition to other forms of obesity treatment ”.

Gerlach, G., Herpertz, S., Loeber, S. (2015). Personality traits and obesity: A systematic review. Obesity Reviews, 16 (1): 32-63. doi: 10.1111 / obr.12235

Source: Press release German Society for Psychology (DGPs)